We stand at a historic moment to consider the state and the direction of America’s immigration policy. President Biden campaigned on not only a strong repudiation of the worst harms of the Trump Administration’s assaults on immigrants and immigration plans, but he also committed to pursuing administrative and legislative action to build a modern, humane, and orderly immigration system.
Where the poetry of campaigning meets the prose of governing is where we will see if the Biden Administration fulfills this commitment. Will it seize the opportunity to build an immigration system that can work to ensure America leads the twenty-first century? Or will Trumpian efforts to slash immigration and demonize immigrants dominate huge swaths of our politics for decades to come? Nothing is certain except that this is the largest opportunity in a generation to build an immigration system that will spur innovation and bring decency and fairness to millions. The stakes could not be higher.
It is an oversimplification to ask where our country and our politics stand on the question of immigrants and immigration—people use words like “immigration” to simplify thousands of different personal and policy questions—but it is worth focusing for a moment on what might be perceived as contradictions.
Public support for immigrants and immigration—along with a pathway to citizenship, raising immigration levels, and other policies—has risen over the last two decades and throughout the Trump presidency to an all-time high. Supermajorities of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform and protections for Dreamers. Two decades ago, on the question of whether “immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents,” the two parties answered roughly equally—47 percent of Democrats said “yes,” as did 46 percent of Republicans. Twenty years later, Democratic support has skyrocketed to just under 90 percent saying “yes,” while Republicans answering “yes” has dipped slightly to 40 percent. The Trump presidency seemingly fueled a continued rise in support for immigrants among Democrats, while in terms of overall support among Republicans, the Trump era saw no discernible effect on this question of overall support.
Democrats forced a government shutdown in 2018 to push for citizenship for DACA recipients, and public outrage with the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance family separation policy was one of the most dominant and politically damaging stories of the Trump Administration. President Trump, of course, deployed the most explicitly anti-immigrant rhetoric of the modern era. His signature immigration legislation, the Raise Act, which never became law, would have resulted in the largest cuts to immigration since the racial quota acts of the 1920s. His attempted cuts under the pretext of COVID-19 would have, if enacted, reduced immigration by an unheard of 92 percent.
President Trump’s pathway to the Republican nomination in 2016 was fueled by explictly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racial demagoguery; in the general election of that year, the President lost vote share with college-educated white voters in part because of these views, but the most consequential developments were his gains in turnout and his vote share of non-college educated white voters disproportionately concentrated in battleground states.
Yet clearly, while in office, Trump’s immigration agenda was a huge political liability. Aside from the fact that the above measures never passed, it was the case that his anti-immigrant attacks backfired in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race; his efforts to repeal DACA and family separation were a substantial political liability for the President and the Republicans when Democrats swept in 2018, according to Republicans, and he lost in 2020; also during that race, his attempts to frighten the electorate about the “caravan” coming up from Central America did not succeed. Despite the media sensationalism in some cases, the voters by and large did not buy Trump’s nativist arguments.
Six months into President Biden’s term, it is an open question if he will seize this historic opportunity to show the true leadership needed to usher in a new, working immigration system that allows America to thrive. About questions on refugees and asylum, on a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, on the basic treatment and opportunities given to immigrants here today, and on whether America will remain the top destination for talent from around the world, the future is unclear.
An outdated analysis on the politics of immigration would have predicted this moment to be impossible: Pundits would have said tackling immigration reform would be politically unattainable during a period of higher unemployment, or a weakened economy, let alone during a global pandemic. And yet, the months ahead present not only an opportunity for the Biden Administration to roll back the worst of the Trump Administration’s assaults on immigrants and our immigration system through administrative action, but an opportunity to secure a pathway to citizenship for millions of Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status holders, undocumented farmworkers, and other essential workers. Whether this can be accomplished via finding 60 Senate votes for a bipartisan process or through the budget reconciliation process—which requires only 50 votes—remains to be seen.
For many, a pathway to citizenship has been the central goal of any immigration overhaul—and preventing it the central goal of others. There are between 10 and 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States—a number that has gradually declined after peaking in 2006 at approximately 12.5 million. The average undocumented immigrant has been in this country more than a dozen years. Five million U.S. citizen children have an undocumented parent. More than eight million citizens share a household with someone who is undocumented. Millions have been here since the 1990s.
It was the 1996 immigration law signed by President Clinton that eliminated the ability for most undocumented immigrants to adjust their status that created the modern undocumented situation. Most undocumented immigrants who were in the country without status—including those who entered legally and fell out of status—became subject to bars, meaning in order to adjust status, they would have to leave the country for more than a decade before trying to try to come back legally. Left without any realistic and humane way to adjust status, people have been trapped. Or put differently: If an undocumented father of a five-year-old U.S. citizen is subject to the ten-year bar, he can either stay and be undocumented, or he can leave the country and maybe have some small chance he makes it back for his daughter’s high school graduation.
A pathway to citizenship is not only a moral imperative, but a huge economic opportunity—it increases earnings, helps people build wealth, and increases tax revenue. This greater economic prosperity associated with citizenship carries important multiplier effects for the U.S. economy. FWD.us estimates that undocumented immigrants earning U.S. citizenship would annually contribute an additional $149 billion after taxes to the economy. This could result in an annual increase of $39 billion more in combined taxes at all levels of government.
We should not just weigh the costs of failure, however, as the lack of benefits. We need to grapple with what it means for our country that entire generations have grown up, and sometimes old, in the United States under the daily fear of deportation, a lack of basic rights, and an increased enforcement environment. Nowhere has this been more apparent than the dramatic rise in immigration enforcement infrastructure in and around the U.S.-Mexico border.
While there are more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, and approximately one in seven people in the United States is an immigrant, we are entering the fourth decade in which our media and political ecosystems remain disproportionately focused on the U.S.-Mexico border and a never-ending debate around the concepts of “crisis,” “order,” and “security.” One would have no idea that between 2001 and 2017, the number of unauthorized crossings at the Southwest border plummeted by more than 75 percent. A combination of factors drove dramatic changes in the reality at the border. The Mexican economy grew, a guest worker program, created to allow for seasonal and economic migration expanded, and declining birth rates in Mexico in the decade prior meant less out-migration. But while crossings plummeted and bottomed out at pre-COVID historic lows in 2017, the call for a border wall grew as a constant refrain.
Despite President Trump’s initial efforts claiming his opposition was merely to those coming illegally, “the wall” was both a noxious and xenophobic signaling effort and one that obscured that the central thrust of the Trump Administration was to slash legal immigration to the lowest levels since the racial quota laws of the 1920s. The Trump Administration slashed refugee levels—Muslim refugees were the central focus. Trump proposed to cut the family-based immigration system by nearly 75 percent. He was so committed to slashing legal immigration that his Administration repeatedly killed bipartisan deals that would have given a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers—and billions in wall funding the President otherwise demanded. They used the pandemic to try to attack nearly every legal immigration avenue.
In total, the Trump Administration proposed more than 1,000 changes to the immigration system—nearly every one was designed to make immigration harder, more limited, more restrictive, or more expensive. Many were accelerated under the pretext of the pandemic—not on public health grounds in many cases, but rather under the pretense that American jobs needed to be protected from immigrants—despite clear evidence that immigrants and immgration grow the economy. The Biden Administration has a clear path forward to undo these punitive measures, and it should press ahead on its campaign promises to use its administrative power to make immigration more accessible and an easier process.
This extends to the border, where, to date, the Biden Administration has taken some steps forward to restore some basic rights for families seeking asylum. The Administration is working to reunify families separated under the notorious zero-tolerance policy of the Trump Administration and has allowed some families harmed by the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy to enter the United States. But it has also maintained a number of the most restrictive policies from the Trump Administration, including the “Title 42” restrictions, which disproportionately harm Haitian and other Black asylum seekers.
What is needed, therefore, is for the United States to create a modern system of Western Hemisphere migration—built upon new, actual working legal immigration avenues, which simply do not exist at this time. The goal should be to make it much easier for people to come to the United States legally—be it to be with family, to work seasonally or permanently, or to seek refuge by creating a Western Hemisphere refugee program. Right now, with no working legal pathways for people for nearly anyone from Central America, many people see crossing the border illegally or seeking asylum as their only real path. Creating avenues to manage forced migration will only become more important in the decades ahead, and the climate crisis will push tens to hundreds of millions more from their homes. We can and must be a country that encourages legal immigration, protects human rights, allows displaced people to seek asylum, and treats those families with respect.
We also need to create a system that allows America to welcome the best and brightest from around the world. That America has welcomed immigrants in higher absolute numbers than any other modern nation—albeit in deeply inconsistent and imperfect ways—has been an incredible source of strength. But we welcome fewer immigrants today as a percentage of the population than at many points in our history, and countries like Canada and Australia welcome substantially higher percentages of immigrants to their shores. America’s employment-based immigration system is horribly out of date, and we need to both expand and reform high-skilled immigration options, whether they be H1-B visas or employment-based green cards, including by lifting the discriminatory country cap.
Opponents of immigration like to scare people by pointing out that with one in seven Americans being foreign-born, we’re approaching a historic high. This leads some to assert that all manner of current ills result from this. The truth shows this could not be further from the case. The percentage of foreign-born Americans is approaching historic high-marks—but this is a function of declining domestic birth rates as much as it is the increased immigration levels. These declining birth rates are not unique to America, but immigration presents America the opportunity to have substantial control over the decades ahead in terms of global competitiveness.
A new report by FWD.us puts into stark contrast the choices available to the United States:
Increas[ing] the number of immigrants entering our country each year substantially will grow our competitive advantage and expand our future workforce, according to immigration scenarios prepared by researchers at George Mason University…. Without boosting legal immigration significantly now, the United States will sacrifice its position as the world’s largest economy by 2032 and leave the reserves of vital programs—like Social Security—depleted by 2034. Moreover, if the U.S.’s working-age-to-senior ratio is not maintained, economic growth will slow compared with other nations, draining our social safety nets and sacrificing our current position as the world’s economic leader. In fact, if current U.S. population trends continue, the U.S. economy will fall behind China’s by 2032, and be only three-quarters of China’s economy by 2050.
Increasing immigration, by contrast, not only is a critical factor to ensure America’s global competitiveness, but will raise the standards of living and wages of Americans. Projections show that U.S. GDP could double by 2050 if immigration levels were also doubled, to more than 2 million new permanent and temporary immigrants each year. Per capita, this would lead to a 3 percent increase in average income by 2050 for all Americans compared with keeping immigration at recent levels, and a 7 percent increase compared with a zero immigration scenario. Moreover, this research makes clear the incredible economic benefits not only of those coming through the employment-based immigration system, but also in the family-based system.
Building Back Better from the public health and economic crises resulting from COVID-19 requires transforming our long-failed immigration system. The pandemic has devastated Black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous communities in the United States. And immigrants—who worked disproportionately in frontline jobs, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances, have been excluded from many forms of relief. Not only were undocumented taxpayers excluded from the COVID stimulus payments, but the first legislation that included payments actually excluded U.S. citizens who happened to file their taxes jointly with an undocumented spouse. Those working outside the formal economy were excluded from unemployment insurance. And the Trump Administration took advantage of the pandemic to try to reduce the ability of American research universities to recruit from around the world.
Undocumented essential workers don’t deserve a pathway to citizenship because they’re essential and often frontline workers—but it is simply wrong to call someone essential and deportable. Rather than affixing a honorary title, a true recovery aiming to “Build Back Better” will ensure a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented Essential Workers. If we want to be prepared for the next pandemic, what better than building an immigration system that ensures the next generation of biomedical research is headquartered in the United States.
At a fundamental level, apart from any particular policy debate on immigrants and immigration policy, we see a political debate on one of the most fundamental American questions: Who counts as an American? Trump’s “build the wall” chant was about so much more than physical barriers—it was to make clear whom the state exists to serve and against whom its power and barriers are deployed. When Fox News primetime hosts speak of existential defeat of their conception of an American nation if undocumented immigrants are allowed to earn a pathway to citizenship, they actually are mixing the fear of immigrants with a deeper question of who really counts an American—and that is a question that at its core is about issues of race, racism, ethnicity, and other identities more than about legality and processes of migration.
This is a question of how we can figure out a way to be a fair, equitable, diverse, and diversifying democracy that welcomes immigrants and their children—or not.
If we can succeed in that task and build a policy architecture that grants equal rights and welcomes those in the future, we can transform tens of millions of lives. That is the task and challenge ahead.